“Katie . . .” he groaned.
She smiled. “Yes. Like that. It makes me warm and tingly all over. Now raise your arms.”
He could deny her nothing, and she knew it. She meant to make use of it.
She drew the gathered shirt over his head and down his arms, then cast it gently aside. Swiveling her body, she angled to face him. Her gaze roamed over his bared chest, and the look in her eyes was a mix of fascination and fear. He felt the urge to hide the truth, the unpleasantness. But it was better that she see this and understand.
She said, “Tell me.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Which was the first?”
“This one.” He turned his shoulder to her, to point out the small rose inked there.
“How did you get it?”
“After I left London—”
“With me. After you left London with me, and delivered me to Margate.”
“Yes.” He swallowed. “I couldn’t go back to the Hothouse, of course. Even if I’d wished to return, and I didn’t. I roamed the countryside, doing odd work here and there, but mostly sleeping in haystacks and living off what small game I could snare. I found I had a knack for it, the coursing. It was as if I lived so wild, I developed an animal way of thinking. I sensed where the hare would be before it appeared, knew which direction it would flee. And the open land and fresh air . . . I think it did me good, after all those years of London soot. I was a dirty, scraggly thing, but I think those months were the closest to happiness I ever came.
“I fell in with a poaching gang, once winter arrived. I brought them game to sell, they made sure I had a barn to sleep in and a warm coat and boots. This mark”—he rubbed the crudely drawn flower—“was how the members knew one another. No names.”
“No friendships,” she said. “No real human connections.”
“I did have a dog.”
“Really?” She smiled. “What was his name?”
He hesitated. “Patch.”
“Oh, Samuel.” She pressed a hand to her cheek and shook her head. “I was so thoughtless. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged. “Don’t be. Badger suits him.”
She found the row of numbers inside his left forearm. “And this?”
“Ah. Those mark the next stop in a poacher’s career. Prison.”
“Prison? Oh, no. How old were you then?”
“Fifteen. I think.”
She rubbed the tattoo. “Was this some sort of identification number they gave to all the prisoners?”
He shook his head. “I did it myself, the first month. It’s the date I was due to be released. Didn’t want to risk it being forgotten.”
“Forgotten by the gaolers?”
“Forgotten by me.”
Neither had he been willing to prolong his sentence by accepting any comforts in prison. Bedding, meat rations, the keys to the irons—all of it came at a price, and the gaolers tallied it in ledgers. Sixpence a week for this, a shilling for that. By the time a man’s sentence was served, he might have accrued debt in the tens of pounds—and he wouldn’t be released until he came up with the funds to pay it. Rather than face that madness, he had refused any extra food or blankets.
“How long were you imprisoned?” she asked.
“I was sentenced to seven years. But in the end, I only served four.”
The word “only” contained all sorts of lies. Only four years of sleeping on straw so old it had turned to dust, and so thick with vermin that the dust seemed alive. Only four years of surviving on a penny’s worth of bread a day. Only four years of shivering in irons that never were adjusted, even though he grew bigger and taller every month.
Yes, “only” four years of violence, hunger, ugliness, and animal treatment that haunted him to this day.
“The courts took mercy on you?” she asked.
“Mercy? Hardly. England needed soldiers more than she needed prisoners. They released me on the condition that I enlist.”
“So this . . .” She touched the medallion on the right side of his chest. “Is this the symbol of your regiment?”
“Partly.” His chest lifted in a humorless chuckle. “Don’t go fishing for deep meaning in that one. Just too much rum in a Portuguese tavern one night, soon after we shipped to the Peninsula.”
Her hand slipped down his rib cage and to the left, passing right over his heart. He winced at the ripples of pure pleasure.
“And this . . . ?” she asked. “B.C. Who was she? Did you meet her in the same tavern? Was she exotic and big-breasted and terribly beautiful? Did you . . . care for her?”
He stared at her, struggling like the devil not to laugh.
“I hope she was a good person, for your sake. But however well she treated you, I must admit that I’ve formed an irrational, intense dislike of her already. In my mind, I’ve named her Bathsheba Cabbagewort.”
Now he lost the struggle. He bent his head and laughed, long and low.
“Well, there’s something good come out of it,” she said, eyes misty. “I’ve been growing quite desperate to hear you laugh. And it’s just as I suspected.” She touched his cheek. “You do have a dimple, just here. Tell me Bathsheba never saw that.”
He put his hand over hers and drew it downward. He traced the letters on his side with her fingertip.
“B.C.,” he said. “Not a woman. It stands for ‘Bad Character.’ It’s what they mark on soldiers who are drummed out of their corps for criminal offenses.”
“Criminal offenses? What did you do?”
“What didn’t I do would be the better question. Looting, thieving, fighting, shirking duty, insubordination. Everything short of rape, murder, and desertion—and I was primed to attempt the last. So far as I was concerned, His Majesty’s government had beaten and starved everything human from me already. Then they’d sent me to die on the battlefield. Nothing mattered to me anymore, Katie. I had no loyalty, no honor, no morality. I was truly more beast than man.”
“But you changed, obviously. And you did stay in the army, or you never would have come to Spindle Cove.”
He nodded. “After my drumming out, I was sent to Lord Rycliff. He was Lieutenant Colonel Bramwell then. It was his to say what to do with me—prison, death, worse. But he took one look at me and said he’d be a fool to send away any man with my fitness and strength. So he kept me on, made me his personal batman. His valet, in essence.”
“That was very good of him.”
“You can’t know. It was the first time in years that someone had entrusted me with anything. Rycliff wasn’t much older than me, but he was comfortable with command. And he was nothing like my sergeants. He cared about the men in his regiment. He took pride in our mission. I worked so close to him, I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I started to see that there was honor to be found in doing a task well, no matter how small. Starching collars, mending seams, replacing buttons. But mostly the boots.”
He nodded. “Worth more than my life’s wages, his boots were. Worth more than my life itself, I’d guess. This was the infantry. Every day, all day—we marched, dug, fought. Come nightfall his boots would be covered in dust, muck, blood, worse. I slaved for hours to make them shine again. So he’d look at them in the morning and know there was something worth saving beneath it all. And when I’d finished with his boots, I still didn’t sleep—not until I’d done the same with mine.
“I wasn’t loyal to the army or England so much as I was loyal to him—or maybe even just to those boots. When he took a bullet to the knee—I couldn’t let him lose that leg, you know. No leg, no boot. Would have been giving up half my purpose in life.” He rubbed his face and stared into the fire. “He’s offered to grant me a commission now.”
“Lord Rycliff has?”
“What an honor, Samuel. Don’t you want it?”
He shook his head. “I’m not made for that. I don’t have Rycliff’s ease with military politics. The open country is where I was best suited, even as a youth. It’s where I belong now. Out in the wilderness, with the creatures that howl and claw and snarl. No social graces necessary.”
There. He’d laid it all out before her. His checkered past, his history of crime and violence. All the reasons he needed to leave England and stay far away from her.
And in response she said the most horrible thing he could imagine.
“Would you take me with you?”
“Take you with me?” he echoed. “To America?”
Kate nodded. It seemed more than reasonable to her. He’d suffered twenty years of violence and misery to pay the cost of her dreams. She could handle living in a cabin.
His brow furrowed. “No. No.”
As she watched, he rose from the carpet and went to the opposite side of the small room, pulling her gown from the screen where he’d hung it to dry and filling a pressing iron with hot coals.
Well. That wasn’t quite the response she’d been hoping for.
“You can’t leave me,” she said. “The world will only push us back together. Haven’t we learned that much? We’re meant to be with each other.”
“We’re meant to be no such thing. You are the daughter of a marquess. You always were, even then. And I was always a lowborn cur. There’s nothing we have in common. Nothing.”
“Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Of course I do.”
He spread her frock over the table, carefully layering it between pressing cloths. The muscles of his left arm bunched and flexed as he skimmed the hot iron over fabric, working with care and confidence. She never could have dreamed how arousing this would be—the sight of a massive, shirtless man pressing a gown. All she could think of was those hands roving over her body, warming and smoothing her own frayed edges.
“Katie, I want you to have everything you’re entitled to—wealth, connections, Society. The family you always dreamed of finding. It’s all yours now, and I’ll be damned if I’ll ruin that for you.” He put the iron aside. “You can’t be with someone like me. Look at me. That cousin of yours wouldn’t hire me on as a footman.”
If Thorne was this reluctant already, she wasn’t about to tell him the truth of her inheritance. Not yet. He wouldn’t see it as a convenience, only as one more factor widening the gulf he perceived between them.
Which wasn’t a gulf at all. All that separated them was an imaginary line. But someone must take the first step across it, and Kate knew it would have to be her.
“This is about us, Samuel. No one else.” She drew the blanket about her shoulders and rose to her feet. His stubbornness was a thing to be conquered, and she felt her courage rising. “I’m just me. Just Katie. Your Katie, as you called me once. I know you have feelings for me.”
He set the iron down, agitated. “I’ve told you, time and again, it’s only—”
“Only desire. Yes, I know you’ve told me that. And I know you’re lying to me. Your feelings go much deeper than lust.”
“I feel nothing.” His nostrils flared. He beat his fist against his chest. “Nothing. Do you understand me?”
“I know that’s not tr—”
“Look. These letters.” He pointed to the B.C. marked on the left side of his torso. “Do you know how they make these marks?”
She shook her head no.
“They take a board, about so big.” He measured with his hands. “And on it are protruding nails, forming the shapes of the letters. They press the points of those nails to your skin, and then they give the board a smart whack. With a fist, perhaps. Or maybe a mallet.”